Why Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival should be write up your street…

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A Waterside Primary pupil during a creative writing event at Emma Bridgewater.

A cultural wilderness. That’s how one rather unkind soul described Stoke-on-Trent when posting a comment on The Sentinel’s website and mocking plans for the city’s first literary festival announced this week.

Of course, the internet is a strange place where people are far more likely to be disparaging of new initiatives than be welcoming or to accentuate the positives.

I suppose it always was easier to knock than to praise.

They say there’s a book in all of us. Personally I just wish there were a few more lying around in homes across the Potteries – instead of mobile phones and games consoles – and that more parents locally took more of an interest in helping to open their children’s eyes to the joys of reading.

Then again, if the parents themselves struggle with words and left school with a limited grasp of the English language then the idea of picking up a book or writing a story or poem with their children may seem like an alien concept.

Talk to many primary school teachers and they will say that they can spot within the first few weeks the children in their new intake who will do well in class and they are the ones who are properly supported at home.

They are the children who are read to at night before bed and who, in turn, read to their parents. They are the children who receive help with their homework, eat a decent breakfast before school and whose packed lunch doesn’t simply consist of chocolate, crisps and a sugary drink.

The sad fact is that more than 40 per cent of the city’s three-year-olds start school with literacy levels below the national standard because their parents/guardians couldn’t be bothered – or haven’t been able – to give them enough help and support.

Among these you’ll find parents who use the television as a babysitting service and bribe toddlers with biscuits and crisps just for some peace and quiet. You’ll also find mums and dads simply struggling to cope with being, well, mums and dads.

Because of the start two-fifths of children in the city are given, it is perhaps no great surprise that results for seven-year-olds show Stoke-on-Trent is at the bottom of league tables in England for reading, writing and maths.

These are depressing statistics which drill down to the heart of why many people locally fail to aspire to further and higher education and are unable to fulfil their wider potential.

You can get by without some subjects and certain knowledge taught in schools but, in terms of basic life skills, being able to read and write to a decent standard is fundamental.

The irony that Stoke-on-Trent’s first literary festival, entitled Hot Air, was announced during the same week that The Sentinel published a story revealing 300 odd Staffordshire University students had been caught cheating by plagiarising other people’s work was not lost on me.

When at high school and Sixth Form College, Fenton, I’d walk a couple of miles from my home in Sneyd Green to the reference department at Hanley Library in order to fish out whichever books I needed for homework, essays or exams. My generation used a fountain pen from the age of 11 onwards in order that we could improve the standard of our ‘joined-up’ writing.

If I made an error on a six or seven page A4 essay for my A-Level English Literature teacher, Mr Adshead, out came the Tipp-Ex. Better that gunky mess on one line than having to re-write the lot from scratch, eh?

These days students rarely use a pen and don’t even have to get out of bed to do their homework. They can Google (other search engines are available) whatever topic they require and find reams of information – often written by previous students – which they can steal bits of, recycle, and then present as their own work.

This is one of the reasons why I would argue the age of copy and paste has done very little to improve literacy standards.

It goes without saying the internet is a wonderful tool which provides countless benefits but for every advantage it gives us as a society there’s usually a downside.

In the case of literacy standards, the internet and indeed the ‘text speak’ which has become prevalent through the use of mobile devices is killing the Queen’s English.

Some experts will tell you that language is always evolving and you shouldn’t get too uptight about the use of numbers where letters should be or the general malaise over literacy standards which pervades our everyday lives.

Then there are Luddites like me who believe it’s just plain wrong for councils to run Uth (youth) centres and drop apostrophes from road signs because some people don’t know how to use them.

We have a problem with literacy standards here in Stoke-on-Trent and so the idea of staging a festival aimed at encouraging reading and writing makes absolute sense.

It also, with the attendance of stellar names like best-selling authors Joanna Trollope and Dr David Starkey (as well as our own rising star Mel Sherratt), promises to be a lot of fun.

A literary festival isn’t in any way a silver bullet for the problem of poor literacy standards locally but if it encourages people to engage with libraries, meet authors and handle books or perhaps pick up a pen or approach a keyboard in order to write something, then it can be regarded as a success.

If The Sentinel’s Too Write! competition for authors of all ages inspires hundreds of children and adults to try their hand at storytelling then it too can be deemed to have done its job.

Anyway, I’ll have to go. It’s World Book Day on March 6 and my two have decided to both go in to school dressed as George Kirrin from the Famous Five. I kid you not.

Do you know hard it is to find a decent satchel and a children’s outfit from the 1950s?

Still, better this than them going to school dressed as a character from the latest Disney movie that will have been forgotten next year.

Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, I say. It’s ginger beer all round in our house. Long live proper books with all that old-fashioned punctuation lark.

*The Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival takes place at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 20, 21 and 22. Ticket information will be released on March 31.
For details on the Too Write! writing competition email: toowrite@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Friday

There are few greater gifts for a child than a love of reading

The Famous Five: Still cool.

The Famous Five: Still cool.

In our house ‘storytime’ is special. It’s that half an hour or so before the kids go to bed when me, the missus and our six and eight year olds snuggle up together on the bunk bed and read to each other.

Forget mealtimes: This is proper family time. It is the one time of day when telephones are ignored, the TV is switched off and we all focus on an old-fashioned printed tome.

Guests at chez Tideswell (notably and my mum) will tell you they’re are not immune, either, as very often Lois and Mina will ask them to read a chapter or two of whatever book we’re half way through.

For years now, little ’un has refused to go to sleep without a story. (She doesn’t know that big ’un then reads under the duvet with her Disney Princess torch when the lights go out).

We’ve read to our girls since they were three months old – reinforcing the idea of a quiet time before bed and getting the babies used to sound of our voices.

We began with flap books and the ones with textured pages before graduating to storybooks with tales that could be read in a session.

We started by Going On A Bear Hunt, met The Gruffalo, found Room On The Broom and probably over-stayed our welcome with the Mister Men.

Our readings involve funny voices and as much excitement as we can muster after a long day at work.

More recently we moved on to the offerings of comedian turned-author David Walliams and were thrilled to discover one of them, Mr Stink, was a television special last Christmas starring the excellent Hugh Bonneville.

But it is an author who first entertained children with her tales of adventure and lashings of ginger beer during the dark days of the Second World War who has really grabbed the imagination of my two.

Yes, to live at our house you have to be a fully paid-up member of the Famous Five fan club.

Forget any ideas of the language being out-dated or that dear old Enid Blyton somehow perpetuated sexist stereotypes: My kids absolutely love these stories.

I swear if Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the Dog (that tune will stay with you all day, now) lived next door I wouldn’t see my girls over the summer holidays.

We are currently reading book number 11 of the 21 in the Famous Five series and I genuinely don’t know what we’ll do when we reach the end. Probably turn in desperation for the Secret Seven, I should imagine.

Finishing the series is a matter of such concern to Lois that she’s started rationing the books to holiday periods so that they last longer. I kid you not.

I’m chuffed to bits that my girls love to read and enjoy being read to. I think there are few greater gifts you can bestow on your child than a love of books.

E-readers, game consoles, mobile phones and touch-screen tablets are all well and good but nothing beats the simple pleasure of losing yourself in a book.

What’s more, you aren’t half giving your child a good platform for his or her education if you can nurture in them a love of reading.

This storytime scenario in our house is a scene which is doubtless repeated in homes across the land.

No matter how tired they are or what kind of day they’ve had, many parents make the time to read to their children every day and it makes a hell of a difference.

Ask any teacher. They will tell you it’s easy to spot the children who receive help and support with reading at home and, likewise, those who don’t know one end of a book from the other.

Sadly, Stoke-on-Trent fares extremely poorly when it comes to reading – with 40 per cent of children in the city starting school with literacy levels below the national standard.

Results for seven-year-olds also show Stoke-on-Trent is bottom of the league tables in England for reading, writing and mathematics.

There are no excuses because other cities have the same problems.

We can blame levels of deprivation; We can blame an over-emphasis on computers and modern technology.

In the end it doesn’t matter. All that matters is the generations of children who are growing up without the essential communication tools needed to get a decent education and get on in life.

Given the grim statistics, I welcome news of the Stoke Reads scheme, funded by the city council, which is part of a campaign to boost literacy standards.
It will initially be piloted with 80 parents who will be trained to use fun techniques to get pre-school children excited about reading.

This is just the first of a series of initiatives planned over the next three years – including encouraging better links between primary schools and libraries – but is significant, to me, in that it acknowledges that it is often parents who need assistance in order to be able to help their children.

No-one sets out to be bad parent but the fact is that there are too many mums and dads who have neither the skills nor the inclination, perhaps both, to pass on to their children the simple, free gift of reading.

For some parents it is clearly easier to let their child suck on a dummy for longer than is good for their speech development or use the telly as a babysitter rather than interact with a noisy toddler.

It is this skills vacuum, and – like it or not – an abdication of responsibility by some mums and dads, which is limiting the prospects of generations of youngsters from our neck of the woods.

In my book, anything which stops the rot and better equips parents to support their children’s education is worth supporting.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday